Dairy farmers who supplied the now-defunct MOO Milk are anxiously awaiting the outcome of negotiations to sell the brand to Oakhurst Dairy, a deal that could put the organic milk back on store shelves.

According to five of the 12 Maine dairy farms that formed the MOO Milk collaborative, the negotiations’ outcome is expected to be announced this week.

Until then, said South China farmer Spencer Aitel, the situation is causing tension among the farmers.

The farmers have been in limbo since Falmouth-based Maine’s Own Organic Milk, known as MOO Milk, abruptly ceased direct-to-consumer sales in mid-May, citing problems with its carton-filling equipment.

The farmers have been operating under a temporary agreement to wholesale their milk to Londonderry, N.H.-based Stonyfield Farm, which makes yogurt. The agreement is due to expire when the farmers obtain long-term supplier agreements.

The farmers said that two potential offers appear to be on the table: one from Portland-based Oakhurst and the other from Organic Valley, a Wisconsin-based dairy provider. But without knowing the details of Oakhurst’s offer, it’s impossible to make any decisions, they said.

“We have no idea what the (impending) deal is,” said Herbert McPhail, who owns Rocky Ledge Farm in Perry. “Nobody’s telling us nothing.”

Stonyfield Farm initially considered offering the farmers long-term supplier agreements, said company Chairman Gary Hirshberg, but it backed off when the company found out that Organic Valley, one of its suppliers, was interested.

“If Organic Valley gets it, I image we’d be getting some of that milk,” he said.

Neither MOO Milk nor Oakhurst representatives returned calls seeking comment.

In mid-June, MOO Milk posted a note on its Facebook page asking if consumers would be willing to buy its product in recyclable plastic jugs, rather than in the cardboard cartons it had been using. The post drew 600 replies, with the overwhelming majority saying they would buy MOO Milk in plastic jugs.

Founded in 2010, the company was selling 8,000 to 10,000 gallons of organic milk per week, distributed to 200 retailers throughout New England, when it announced that it was shutting down.

Aitel, who owns Two Loons Farm in South China, said the lack of details about a potential deal is creating tension among the farmers because a proposed deal could pit them against each other.

Some of the farmers said they have been approached directly by Organic Valley about becoming long-term suppliers but they are awaiting the details of the potential deal with Oakhurst before making any decisions.

Aitel said that if Oakhurst’s proposal would require all 12 farms to become Oakhurst suppliers for the deal to go through, farmers who might have a better offer from Organic Valley would have to choose between their own best interests and those of the other farms.

“Interpersonal relationships among farmers are at risk, because we’re being played with,” he said.

The farmers that said MOO Milk CEO Bill Eldridge and majority owner Norman Cloutier, founder and former chief executive officer of United Natural Foods Inc., have not involved any of them in the negotiations, and that the farmers have been instructed not to talk about the proposed deal.

“(Cloutier) has been after us not to say anything to anybody about anything,” Aitel said.

Laura Chase, who owns Chase’s Organic Dairy Farm, said the negotiations likely will be successful and the farmers have been told to expect an announcement this week.

“It’s a time of uncertainty for us,” Chase said. “It looks like something is going to work out.”

Despite rising sales, MOO Milk announced in May that it no longer would process organic milk at Westbrook’s Smiling Hill Farm and distribute it to New England retailers. Company officials cited worsening problems with carton-filling equipment that was had been decommissioned by Oakhurst and donated to MOO Milk.

“The equipment is technologically obsolete, suffered frequent breakdowns and is not capable of meeting the current and future requirements,” the company said in a news release.

Eldridge said in May that the company had explored other options, including building a new packaging plant, but determined that none was viable.

Chase said it remains unclear whether a deal with Oakhurst would be an attractive long-term solution for her farm.

Oakhurst Dairy, a 93-year-old business, was acquired in late January by Dairy Farmers of America, a cooperative owned by more than 8,000 farms in 48 states. At the time, Oakhurst officials said that the dairy would continue to operate under local control, and that none of its 200 employees would lose their jobs.

Still, Chase said she fears that Oakhurst’s new ownership ultimately could assert a negative influence.

“I’m concerned that Oakhurst is no longer operating independently as a Maine-owned dairy,” she said.

Farmers also fear that while the MOO Milk farms closer to southern Maine may get competing offers, the high cost of transporting milk from more distant farms will likely limit the options for farmers in other parts of the state.

David James, who owns James Pond Dairy in Washington County, said he may have no choice but to accept any offer from Oakhurst.

“I think we’re going to have to take it,” he said.

 


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